Game On: The Batavia Muckdogs
Majoring in minor league baseball
Walking into Dwyer Stadium for a Batavia Muckdogs minor league baseball game feels more like wandering into a family reunion than arriving at a pro sporting event. There are no long lines, no squadrons of menacing security personnel, just friendly members of the community taking your ticket and welcoming you to the home of the Class-A Short Season affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals.
For the $6.50 price of admission (parking is free), you can sit where you like, and see some pretty good baseball in an intimate 2,200-seat stadium that doesn’t have a bad seat in the house. As the saying goes, “If you were any closer to the action, you’d need a glove.” And if you’re lucky, it will be Muckdogs Water Bottle Giveaway Night or Kids Eat Free Night with a pregame concert and fireworks after the last out. And every night, there are the usual between-inning shenanigans, which include youngsters chasing mascot Homer around the base paths.
For thirty-eight home games from mid-June to Labor Day, you can watch aspiring major leaguers from a dozen states and four Latin American countries do their darnedest to entertain fans and make an impression on scouts and coaches. For about half the team, playing for the Muckdogs (named for the area’s numerous muck farms) is the first pro stop post-college; for others who spent last season in the Dominican Summer League, the Gulf Coast League, or the Appalachian League—the lower rungs of pro baseball’s ladder—landing with the Muckdogs is a step up. Either way, most players learned of Batavia’s geographical existence in early June when the parent Cardinals handed out minor league assignments. And as much as they might bond with this welcoming community of fans, the WNY address is one they hope to keep for no more than a season as they move up the ladder to Class-A Long Season, Double-A, Triple-A, then, hopefully, the Show—Major League baseball.
The twenty-nine players on the 2012 roster are living a dream. Regardless of their route to Batavia, they are being paid to play a game they love. Not extravagant Alex Rodriguez salaries—A-Rod makes more each at-bat than these guys make in a season—but a salary nonetheless, of roughly $1,100 a month. And with that $1,100 comes the possibility, however remote, of an A-Rod future.
Maybe one or two of these 2012 Muckdogs will make the big time some day, following in the footsteps of current Philadelphia stars Ryan Howard (Muckdogs ’01) and Chase Utley (Muckdogs ’00). But even if they don’t, they’re happy to be here. “Every day you get to play is a blessing,” says Virgil Hill, twenty-one-year-old outfielder from California, “You work hard, meet new people, enjoy the game, and hope you advance.” And infielder Jeremy Patton, at twenty-two one of the team’s senior citizens, adds, “I love it [baseball]. My goal is to play until I can’t play any more.”
Manager Dann Bilardello, a fifty-three-year-old former big league catcher who could be excused if he were jaded after thirty-plus years in pro ball, is just as enthusiastic. “I still enjoy what I’m doing. I’ll be here for the summer, my third in Batavia, then I’ll visit all the other Cardinal training facilities as a roving instructor for catchers,” he says, adding that while he may entertain thoughts of managing in the bigs someday, he’s fine working with these new pros, teaching them, “how to be a Cardinal, how to wear the uniform, how to conduct themselves on and off the field, seeing if they have the heart and head as well as the physical skills for big league ball.”
It can be a busy summer. Catcher Casey Rasmus, a twenty-one-year-old Alabaman out of Liberty College recalls, “I was scouted in college by the Cards and then picked in the thirty-sixth round of the major league baseball draft on June eighth. As soon as I signed my contract and we agreed on a bonus amount, they put me on a plane for Batavia.”
A week later, the New York-Penn League opened its season and Rasmus suited up for the Muckdogs as they took on the Auburn (NY) Doubledays. From there, it became a whirlwind of daily games and practices, gym workouts, and bus trips to the other twelve cities in the NY-P league—as close as Auburn and Jamestown (home of the Jammers), and as far away as Aberdeen, Maryland (the Ironbirds), Williamsport, Pennsylvania (the Crosscutters), and Burlington, Vermont (the Lake Monsters). The Class-A shoestring budget is hardly cushy enough for chartered jets, so whenever possible, the Muckdogs bus home after away games rather than incur the cost of motels and meals.
At home games, it’s immediately evident that this team, owned for nearly seventy-five years by the Genesee County Baseball Club and supported by a 150-member booster club, is the pride of the community. On a typical game day, an hour and a half before a seven o’clock start, some of the 300 season ticket holders will already be there, greeting each other, seat cushions and scorecards in hand as they watch batting practice, and get a chance to chat with the players. At a table just inside the Dwyer gates, a local youth sports organization will offer 50/50 raffle tickets, the proceeds of which go toward new equipment.
In the nearby Beer Garden, Andrew, an effervescent and hardworking Genesee Community College student who lives down the street will offer up Muckdog Lager from Rochester’s Rohrbach Brewery. Down the line, Rachel, the concessions manager, will have thirty or forty local college and high school students employed, serving the signature Muckdog Chow in souvenir bowls alongside the usual favorites. Out in right field at the On Deck Grill, fans will find a top-notch Philly cheese steak. And on the field, twelve-year veteran groundskeeper Don Rock and faithful dog Haley will be keeping the diamond manicured.
Behind the third base dugout in her usual seat will be one of the team’s unsung heroes, Shirley Fanera. She has become the unofficial room mother for these young men, helping them find inexpensive accommodations with local host families. Overseeing it all is affable general manager Travis Sick, a St. John Fisher graduate whose internship five years ago turned into a full-time job.
Eventually, a crowd of a thousand or better will show up to cheer on their Muckdogs. And win or lose, it’s heartening to see a community keep the joy and tradition of America’s favorite pastime alive as they give these young athletes a chance to shine.
Rick Ohler is a lifelong baseball fan who organizes annual bus trips to Muckdogs games. Read his biweekly columns, “The View From Right Field,” in the East Aurora Advertiser, and “The Last Straw” in the ezine Unweaving the Nest.